As it stands on the threshold of the Twelfth Plan, India has a historic opportunity to elevate education and healthcare as the strongest pillars of its future development. Yearning for life-building education is unprecedented today. Yet, as Amartya Sen pointed out last year, the system remains deeply unjust. Access to excellence is open to those who can afford it, while the less-affluent majority has been left behind without even full schooling. That injustice is evident in the low figure of mean years of schooling for the national working age population: 5.12 years in 2010, compared to China's 8.17 years, and Brazil's 7.54 years. In a full decade from 2000, India could not raise the mean substantially from 4.2 years. Tragically, political parties, which see education as too distant an issue to produce electoral victories, have shown little anxiety to improve the country's standing. It is time to change this sorry legacy. Going by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's affirmation, more funds will be devoted for the two key Twelfth Plan priorities, education and health. The UPA has been augmenting the resource base for some years now, using a 3 per cent cess for education, of which 2 per cent is earmarked for elementary education. That effort has raised significant funding, averaging Rs.11,000 crore a year since 2008 and it deserves to be strengthened. The challenge is to spend the funds in a manner that produces tangible, measurable outcomes.

The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act empowers all children to demand eight years of schooling, and everything must be done to encourage people to exercise this fundamental right. Meaningful use of the law requires new infrastructure. But that is the easier part. It is the lack of human resources that is more worrying. The Planning Commission identifies the twin problems of half a million existing teacher-vacancies, and the need to have another half a million teachers with requisite qualifications to meet the RTE Act's pupil-teacher ratio. Priority must therefore be accorded to start as many accredited teacher training institutions as necessary. Such a measure can improve learning outcomes, which are far below desirable levels now. Raising the gross enrolment ratio at the secondary school level from 60 per cent should be the other priority. Expansion of both primary and secondary schooling should remain the responsibility of the state. But Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, the main vehicle for universalisation of elementary education, can tap non-profit initiatives for speedy infrastructure building. Strong commitment towards rising outlays for education alone can determine India's long-term development.

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